Based on direct personal market relationships between consumers and producers, PGS are specifically adapted to short supply chains and have a low cost of participation. This makes PGS very accessible to small farmers who want to sell their products in the local market.
Currently, in Southern countries, the bulk of organic agricultural production is for export. To guarantee the organic character of a product to consumers in faraway markets, third party certification bodies assess the organic claim. Because of the high cost of this external certification, it is however only considered an option when exporting relatively large volumes. Thus de facto excluding a large number of smallholder farmers from participating in the growing organic trade business.
But, the growing demand for organic products in the domestic markets of developing countries opens up new opportunities for smallholders. At least if a less costly way of certification can be found.
Growing from the same ideals that guided yesterday’s pioneering organic farmers, Participatory Guarantee Systems (PGS) have sprouted and are now being implemented in an increasing number of countries. PGS, just like third-party certification systems, aim to provide a credible guarantee for consumers seeking organic produce. The difference is in approach: direct participation of farmers, consumers and other stakeholders in the verification process.
IFOAM (International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements) defines PGS as “locally focused quality assurance systems. They certify producers based on active participation of stakeholders and are built on a foundation of trust, social networks and knowledge exchange.” Based on direct personal market relationships between consumers and producers, PGS are specifically adapted to short supply chains and have a low cost of participation. This makes PGS very accessible to small farmers who want to sell their products in the local market.
Even though developed in function of specific national needs and cultural contexts, PGS in the different countries share the same characteristics. These are : detailed specifications based on IFOAM recommendations, a commitment of the producers, documented management procedures, verification mechanisms and a label as well as well-defined consequences for non-conformity issues.
Since the PGS approach was rolled out, thousands of organic producers are now verified through PGS initiatives across the world (including USA and Europe).
With PGS now considered as a viable alternative to third party certification, enabling smallholder farmers to access the local market, the time has come to get PGS recognised as a system equal to control by third party organisations.
The Intercontinental Federation of Organic Farmer Organisations (INOFO), established in 2008, is campaigning on this theme. According to INOFO’s president Moisés Quispe Quispe, the aim is not to replace the local guarantee systems with an independent body. The challenge is rather to gain recognition for participatory guarantee systems at the country level, not simply for their relevance and economic efficiency but especially “on the basis of social and cultural principles, as a way of life”.
PGS is showing that it can be a model of sustainable economic and social development that is profitable for everyone.